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Evolving, not extinct

Evolving, not extinct

The rumoured death of the CIO is an exaggeration. The role is not only alive and kicking, but morphing from IT head to business leader.

In April 2000, the Harvard Business Review posed the question, "Are chief information officers obsolete?" My favourite part of the response then was: "The fundamental mistake one makes in predicting a CIO-less future is believing that the future will have many of the same components as the present. It never does."

At the risk of "piling it on", I'd now like to add my own response to the question, can CIOs survive? We seem to ask some form of this question about every three years, or when technology writer and critic Nicholas Carr publishes a new book, whichever comes first.

What I'd like to ask is: Why do we keep asking the same question? The fundamental answer remains the same - the role of the CIO is not disappearing and is not obsolete, archaic, outmoded, dying, dead, or becoming extinct. It is simply doing what most natural organisms do over time - evolving!

Many CIOs are struggling with how they manage their evolution from IT leader to business leader. They have made substantial strides in areas such as improving the operational efficiencies of IT, maturing the business processes that manage internal operations and supply chains, and in delivering new technologies and services to their enterprises. Given these gains, the expectations - and roles - of many IT leaders are changing.

Now, CIOs are expected to assume a broader business-leadership role in their enterprises - one that extends the role of IT more aggressively into solving complex business problems and embracing new opportunities. But this step up in expectations requires a skill set that goes beyond delivering IT solutions; it calls for a much deeper understanding of how the business wins, of how it currently competes and might do so in the future. It requires the focus of a business leader.

Many or a few projects

CIOs tend to be pulled in many directions, losing focus on key initiatives that will really impact on change, and become distracted by the many projects that their teams must deliver. But as business leaders, they also need to ensure their divisions are operating at peak performance so they can be freed up to concentrate on the key decisions and opportunities that really matter to their businesses.

They need to be able to rise above project-level noise and focus on the programs that drive corporate change and performance.

Internal focus, outside clients

Business leaders ask, first, what their customers want, and second, how they can deliver on that need. But too often, CIOs are in the dark about how the company engages its end-user customers and how IT can take an active role in product and service creation.

As such, CIOs should ensure that they spend time with customers, working with their business colleagues to select those customers who will value the organisation's interest in them and who will respond candidly to questions as to how it can deliver improved value.

Tasks or relationships

I often hear the comment, "It just takes too much time to manage all those relationships; if I keep talking to everyone I'll never get anything done."

The classic task-driven leader thinks this way. But while tasks enable you to plan and measure progress, relationships are necessary to define, negotiate and manage change. Most successful business leaders will say that their job is 10 per cent tasks and 90 per cent relationships.

Costs and opportunities

IT leaders have become superior managers of cost. But while cost management is a critical skill, businesses actually thrive by identifying unmet needs and fulfilling those needs faster than the competition.

To close a competitive gap or leapfrog a competitor requires a business focus on opportunities, not just costs. Business leaders exploit opportunities just as venture capitalists make investments - by allocating dollars, staff, and time based on value and opportunity.

The role of the CIO continues to expand in many ways - the move to becoming a business leader is just one manifestation of that evolution. In my opinion, the only CIOs who won't survive are those who let themselves become obsolete. So can we please stop asking the question and get on with the evolution?

Mary Ann Maxwell is group managing vice-president, executive programs, Gartner.

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